Part 2 of 4 in a series: Investigation and Arrests.
For more than a century in Montserrat, the prison was located in Plymouth at the junction of Parliament and Strand streets, just south of the public market. The sign outside – “H.M. Prison” – was convenient because it can mean His or Her Majesty and doesn’t have to be replaced each time the monarchy changes hands.
At one point during the 1960s, the inmate population at H.M. Prison dropped to one – and that prisoner was set to be released in a few days. Suddenly, court cases that were usually settled with a simple fine – obscene language, drunk and disorderly, simple assault, etc. – were punished with jail time because, well, prison is also a business.
Montserrat is a dependent British colony, but in many ways it’s also an entity. Often excluded on world maps, the island forged a reputation as an organic sanctuary, enticing many visitors to return and drop anchor permanently. Hospitality is a hallmark . . . but safety has also been a main selling point.
The shocking murder of Sarah “Mon” Meade in the autumn of 1972 transformed Montserrat from a beacon of tranquility to a precinct of paranoia virtually overnight, ripping apart the cloak of comfort that made the island exceptional.
The discovery of the teenager’s tortured and decaying body in Town Hill was deeply atypical of the Emerald Isle, a place where folks leave their doors unlocked, hitchhiking is a custom, and law enforcement is more ceremonial than compulsory. The sheer brutality of the crime terrified locals, especially residents of Town Hill, who went out of their way to avoid the area where the body was found. Parents were now worried about the safety of their daughters, workers organized carpools, and students traveled in groups. No one wanted to be alone.
The Royal Montserrat Police Service, under immense pressure to make an arrest, launched an investigation. A unit whose toughest duty usually consisted of breaking up fights at weekend dances was now tasked with finding a ruthless killer.
The Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) featured some venerable officers, such as Sergeant Winfield Griffith and Inspectors Sydney Charles Sr. and Patrick “Paddy” Lee. Most of these men were physically imposing. Police in Montserrat don’t generally carry firearms, so their presence alone was often a deterrent. Griffith hailed from Barbados and Charles from Nevis. Lee was a native, from St. George’s Hill. The three men had additional incentive to solve the crime because they all lived in Town Hill and had young daughters.
As expected, the murder dominated conversation on the island. People began to compare notes and recount incidents they first dismissed as minor or isolated. Anonymous tips trickled in. And eventually, some nefarious motives began to unfold.
A BREAK IN THE CASE
On Thursday, September 28, 1972 – the day after Sarah Meade’s body was found and later laid to rest – police brought in a man for questioning. He was a Montserratian who had returned home six weeks earlier after spending time in St. Croix.
Joseph “Midda” Buffonge was a 30-year-old veteran seaman. He described himself to police as a navigational officer with the Merchant Marine Fleet. According to legend, he and shipmates once had to be rescued when their vessel – which was overloaded with cement – sank off the coast of Trinidad.
Now back in Montserrat, Midda could often be found at the home of his father, Joe-Joe Buffonge, the stone mason who was nicknamed “Look and Laugh”. Inspector Lee visited the home in Tom Beth (Town Hill) and told the seaman there was a telegram from St. Croix for him at the station.
Once at the station, Midda soon realized there was no telegram. He was taken to C.I.D. and grilled by Sergeant Griffith and Inspector Charles. According to case files, Midda engaged the officers in verbal jousting, giving sarcastic responses and even lobbing a personal insult toward Griffith, who promised Midda that he would “pay for his mouth.” At one point Midda expressed distrust of the officers and refused to answer any more questions unless the conversation was tape recorded. Midda was savvy, but an avalanche of circumstantial evidence was mounting against him.
Asked his whereabouts between September 24 to 27 – the time window of Mon’s disappearance – he gave answers that all seemed innocuous: playing dominoes two nights in a row at an area bar; borrowing a book from the headmistress at Kinsale Primary School; helping his father with chores. He also said he had not been on Peebles Street – site where Mon’s body was found – since returning from St. Croix on August 14, 1972. The timeline for most of his claims could not be corroborated, and in fact were refuted by several witnesses.
A crucial turning point came when Inspector Charles showed Midda a photo of Mon and asked if he knew her. “Who me, me ain’t know she,” he replied indignantly.
It turned out to be a damaging denial because three Town Hill residents revealed that they heard Buffonge call out to Mon – by name – as she walked on Fort Barrington Road about a week before she disappeared. One witness – Matilda “Jenny” Gage – said Buffonge also directed crude sexual remarks toward the teen, calling her “pret up” and in need of a “good seeding”. Based on those revelations, plus other findings, Midda Buffonge was arrested and charged with murder on Tuesday, October 3, 1972.
WHO IS THE LASSO MAN?
How did the police zero in on Midda Buffonge so quickly? Apparently, he was on their radar even before the murder. One of the officers in the C.I.D. was Winston Telesford, a native of Grenada who would end up spending decades on the Montserrat force.
Telesford, speaking on September 29, 2022, explained that about a week before the murder, police received a tip that someone tried to “lasso” a woman on Parsons Road. The woman thankfully managed to get away. Rumors began to circulate that Midda was the culprit. A separate source said other women reportedly felt the touch of a dangling rope as they walked under trees at night in the Town Hill area.
Telesford says he and Sgt. Griffith had the home of Joe-Joe Buffonge under surveillance for several days. But after not spotting anything suspicious, they decided to pause the stakeout for a day. “Griffith said we should take a break,” Telesford says. “He was my [superior] so I had to listen. The next day, I heard that a girl was missing.”
Depositions from witnesses, plus testimony at the trial, indicated that Mon’s body was at the home of Joe-Joe Buffonge at some point. Fifty years later, Telesford still regrets not being able to save the teen. “I would have definitely caught [Midda] if we didn’t take that day off because anyone he brought to that house we would have seen it.”
As for the “lasso” phenomenon, it is one of the most controversial and bizarre episodes in Montserrat history. Several people familiar with the incident say it was central to the motive of the crime. The following explanation was gathered:
Midda Buffonge reportedly owned a “Blackheart” book, which focused on the practice of sorcery and human sacrifice as a means of attaining wealth and power. One source said that in order for the ritual to work, it was necessary to “lasso” the victim – preferably a young girl – in order to sell her soul to the devil. These details have not been confirmed.
The practice of black magic is part of Caribbean folklore. In the early 20th century, American author L.W. de Laurence published books on the occult and had a mail-order business in Chicago that sold occult paraphernalia. He gained a following in parts of the Caribbean, and obeah is often referred to as “de Laurence” – after the author.
The “Lasso Man” saga spawned at least two calypso songs in Montserrat. In the Festival calypso competition in December of 1972, the Mighty Ruler sang Lasso Man, calling for the killer’s execution with the lyrics, “Black Ranger boy you have to die.” The Mighty Arrow also had a song called Lasso Man on his 1973 album Arrow Strikes Again. The lyrics gave some context to the “lasso man” story and its effect on Montserrat.
LISTEN TO “LASSO MAN” BY ARROW (1973)
As the investigation continued and more residents were questioned, police realized that Midda Buffonge likely had an accomplice. Neighbors recalled seeing Buffonge in the frequent company of a Town Hill resident named George “Fowl” Lee, a 31-year-old garbage collector and laborer. Buffonge and Lee were apparently longtime fishing buddies. On October 4, 1972, Lee was brought in for questioning.
Three of Lee’s co-workers on the garbage truck were also questioned. They stated that early Monday morning (September 25) Lee mentioned to them that a young girl was missing, and added that “nobody kill the child but Midda.” Those conversations took place hours before Sarah “Mon” Meade’s parents had even filed a report. How could Lee know before everyone else that Mon was missing?
That was all the evidence police needed. Lee was arrested and charged with murder on October 5. When he was cautioned (read his rights), he reportedly replied: “Is joke you making man, is joke you making.”
AWAITING THEIR FATE
Buffonge and Lee were now remanded into custody. At the time, the Assizes Court would convene three times a year: March, July and November. Both men were arrested in early October – too late for the November Assizes. They now had ample time to reflect, to plan their defense, and also to engage in jailhouse banter with other prisoners. Some of those conversations would come back to haunt one of the defendants.
In March of 1973, the Preliminary Inquiry was conducted. Twenty-seven witnesses submitted depositions. They included family members of the victim, associates of the defendants, investigators and regular citizens. They also included some of the most memorable characters and nicknames of the era: “Red Poll,” “Black Sam,” “Bouncing Willy,” “Twist Mouth Mack,” “Rum Punch,” “Joe Conna,” “Peter Devil” and “Mussolini.”
One witness in particular provided a compelling, detailed and damaging account of how the suspects planned to cover up the crime. His testimony at the trial would prove riveting.
But it would soon be upstaged by another tragedy.